Marking the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation (1517), author Eric Metaxas brings to life in Martin Luther the extraordinary account of a humble man who changed the world and became synonymous with the reformation of the Church. The reader needs patience and concentration but is rewarded with a better understanding of the past and our present circumstances in today’s world.
By 1500, Western Christendom was undergoing a profound change. It was the beginning of an era of reasoning and questioning. After one thousand years of quasi-ignorance, Europe was gradually waking up to a new age. Constantinople had fallen (1453). Columbus had just discovered a new world (1492). The Renaissance was taking shape in Italy. Science was making inroads. Radical questions about the church were raised in the middle of the Holy Roman Empire. And a German monk was wrestling with profound thoughts that in the end would revolutionize the Old World.
Europe at the time was rural and rather static. Kings and aristocrats claimed divine rights and there were few social avenues for personal advancement. Among them was joining the clergy. Martin Luther was groomed by his father to become a lawyer, but while studying law the young man decided to become a monk. The book centers on the evolution of Luther’s thinking, the debates that he triggered, and their consequences. It depicts Luther’s assiduous search for Truth and God, his revolt against the establishment, and the tedious process of splitting with Rome.
It is hard now to understand the mentality of the Middle Ages. For hundreds of years, life had been centered on God and the purpose of life was salvation. However, by 1500 the Catholic Church had become rigid, bureaucratic, and claimed monopoly over the path to salvation and the concept of truth. Furthermore, the church was selling ‘indulgences’ that could be bought by believers to redeem their sins. First, Luther challenged the indulgences, but later he found other failings with the medieval church.
Young Luther began his monastic life as an overzealous believer. He took to heart the study of Scripture and would adhere rigorously to all church cannons. He was searching for truth and wanted to understand God and achieve spiritual perfection. He confessed daily and at times his confessions lasted for hours exasperating his confessors. Yet, his efforts and ascetic life would not bring him any closer to understanding God. In time, he became a priest and professor at Wittenberg University, but his painful search continued. Gradually, Luther would reach the limits imposed by Rome and would realize that the institution of the church was not the solution to his problems, but somehow their cause. The author summarizes this dilemma thusly: “If the church was the repository of all truth, what if someone found a splinter of truth outside the church?” This is what the pious monk began to see. There was truth outside religion! Yet, Luther did not reject from the beginning the established church; he only wanted to reform it from within.
Apparently, the church of Luther’s time had a number of failings. The Vatican was organized as a kingdom, and some popes behaved like kings, with all the trappings of any royalty. Luther found cases of self-interest, materialism and immorality. He wanted to change all that.
On October 31, 1517, All Hallow’s Eve, Luther posted on the door of the church of the Wittenberg Castle the renowned Ninety-five Theses. The posted list was in Latin and was meant to be disputed academically among theologians. The Theses were never supposed to become public. However, with the advent of the printing press that had just been invented, dissemination of his Theses far and wide soon reached the Vatican. Rome summoned Luther to face judgment, which could lead to death by burning. The Prince Elector of Wittenberg asked the Pope to send a cardinal to judge Luther in his home state. Rome dispatched a cardinal to Wittenberg, but the mission failed. Luther would stubbornly ask to first show where he had erred from a theological stand point. The cardinal avoided cannon issues and insisted that Luther recant and assert unequivocally the authority of the church. Stubborn and inflexible in his beliefs, Luther would not budge. He had studied tediously the Bible and the Scriptures were on his side.
What was at stake was establishing primacy. Luther claimed the ‘primacy of the Bible’ over the ‘primacy of the church’, but challenging Rome was very risky. In fact, Luther questioned many established cannons. He claimed that God never separated the priestly class form the laymen. Thus, everyone… popes, emperors, priests or laymen, were on an equal footing before God. He also insisted that the church cannot grant forgiveness or salvation; salvation can only be achieved by individual faith. Luther also challenged several practices of the church, such as clergy celibacy, monastic life, child baptism, and even some sacraments. In his opinion, they were not scriptural. Luther’s first papal judgment ended in a stalemate and in 1521 he was granted a second one.
This time, Luther was summoned to appear before a new papal nuncio and the session was attended by the very emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Again, he would not recant. His convictions were firm. (As Winston Churchill would put it later, “one man with conviction will overwhelm a hundred who have only opinions.”) However, Luther’s convictions would be stretched and interpreted by others resulting in grave consequences. In this regard, some theologians warned him that his attitude would open Pandora’s box with unforeseen and awful results. Indeed, Thomas Muntzer, another German reformist, instigated for violent uprising and revenge against any authority. As a result, in 1524 many disgruntled peasants went on rampages. Luther appealed for calm, but it was too late. The uprising ended with 80,000 victims. And both sides, the peasants who revolted and the authorities who crushed them, claimed to be doing “God’s work.” In fact, the author writes that at the end “there were deeply principled and godly men on both sides of the great and coming divide.” The bloody events of 1524 were just the beginning…
What is Luther’s legacy for the world?
On the positive side, he changed the static medieval mentality and launched an era of individual freedom and social progress. On the negative side, the newly-found freedom opened the door for wild interpretations and for hundreds of new churches, including bizarre religions and false churches. Luther did free the human spirit, which has led to many achievements, but his post also resulted in liberty without responsibility, new oppression in the name of freedom, and materialism without spirituality.
As a motivated reader I followed with real interest the reformation debates. At the end of the lecture I am still undecided; would I have advocated radical reform or gradual change? I guess this is a perpetual dilemma. Change was coming to Europe anyway, but Luther forced it forward.
Nicholas Dima, Ph.D, is a former professor and author of numerous books and articles including the autobiographical memoir, Journey to Freedom, a description of the effects of communist dictatorship on a nation, a family and an individual. He currently lectures and is a contributor to SFPPR New & Analysis of the conservative-online-journalism center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.